“The right of people to self-determination is something I believe in … but we are opposed to the idea that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people.”
Paul O’Brien, the non-Jewish executive director of Amnesty International USA, stirred up a storm of protest with this self-contradictory statement, despite attempts to walk it back. There was a good reason for this: O’Brien appears to believe that all peoples are entitled to self-determination, except the Jews. There’s a name for that kind of double standard—anti-Semitism. For this alone, O’Brien deserves the opprobrium heaped upon him.
With what would O’Brien replace a Jewish state?
“Jewish people want to know that there’s a sanctuary that is a safe and sustainable place that the Jewish people can call home,” he told a Women’s National Democratic Club audience. “The key to sustainability is to adhere to what I see as core Jewish values, which are to be principled and fair and just in creating that space.”
It could be argued that Jews enjoy a place of safety in the United States. Although, if you are an ultra-Orthodox Jew in New Jersey, for example, your sense of safety might be fraying at the edges. But to project the values of a pluralistic democracy onto the Middle East, as O’Brien does, smacks of mind-blowing naiveté.
In O’Brien’s dystopian scenario for a de-Judaized Israel, the Law of Return that grants all diaspora Jews Israeli citizenship would be abrogated, giving them nowhere to flee if necessary. “Hatikvah” would cease to be the national anthem. And, very quickly, Israel would become a majority-Arab state.
The Arab world is full of failed and authoritarian states. Its record on democracy and pluralism is disastrous. And tellingly, with the exception of tiny communities in the Gulf and Morocco, the Arab world is now judenrein. In the wake of the Jewish exodus from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Yazidis, Maronites, Baha’is, Copts, Assyrians and Chaldeans have streamed out as well. The Arab world’s failure to establish a society respectful of dissent, of minority and women’s rights, promises a bleak future of subjugation and intolerance.
Ironically, the million Jews who fled the MENA region they had inhabited since 1,000 years before the rise of Islam were victims of “apartheid” by Amnesty International’s own definition: “deprivation, segregation, fragmentation and dispossession.” Amnesty’s silence on this massive injustice is deafening. And, needless to say, the 650,000 Jews who sought a haven in Israel from Arab and Muslim countries and now form a majority of Israeli Jews did not escape in order to find themselves once more under Arab-Muslim domination.
Until the colonial era granted them greater security, Jews occupied a space in the Muslim polity—“the Jewish quarter in an Arab town.” They lived as inferior “dhimmis” at the mercy of the ruler of the day and paid him the jizya tax, i.e. protection money. Under a benevolent ruler, the Jews could thrive.
At other times, they could not escape violence and oppression. They might have exercised influence as courtiers or advisers, but they never exercised power. To them, the “core Jewish values” evoked by O’Brien meant powerlessness—knowing your place, keeping your head down and accepting “dhimmitude,” which was, again, apartheid according to Amnesty itself. For all intents and purposes, O’Brien is advocating that Jews revert to their former status as a vulnerable minority.
It is likely that the Jews Paul O’Brien meets are the type who belong to Jewish Voice for Peace, delusional liberals who are willing to trade in Jewish sovereignty for his “core Jewish values.” These individuals aim “to promote Jewish powerlessness once again, in an effort to restore the apparent moral purity of a Jewish powerless existence,” as the Israeli academic and former politician Einat Wilf puts it.
Holocaust survivors, Ethiopian Jews, Soviet Jews, Middle Eastern and North African Jews, and now, Ukrainian Jews have found an unconditional haven in a sovereign Jewish state that is committed to defending them. They all know that Jewish powerlessness is a luxury that liberal American Jews may aspire to, but most Israeli Jews can ill afford.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).